Skip Navigation
Annual Reports and Information Staff (Annual Reports)
Preprimary, Elementary, and Secondary Education

English Language Learners in Public Schools

Last Updated: May 2021
|

The percentage of public school students in the United States who were English language learners (ELLs) was higher in fall 2018 (10.2 percent, or 5.0 million students) than in fall 2010 (9.2 percent, or 4.5 million students). In fall 2018, the percentage of public school students who were ELLs ranged from 0.8 percent in West Virginia to 19.4 percent in California.

Students who are identified as English language learners (ELLs) can participate in language assistance programs to help ensure that they attain English proficiency and meet the academic content and achievement standards that all students are expected to meet. Participation in these types of programs can improve students’ English language proficiency, which in turn has been associated with improved educational outcomes.1 The percentage of public school students in the United States who were ELLs was higher in fall 2018 (10.2 percent, or 5.0 million students) than in fall 2010 (9.2 percent, or 4.5 million students).2

Select a subgroup characteristic from drop-down menu below to view relevant text and figures.

Figure 1. Percentage of public school students who were English language learners, by state: Fall 2018
Figure 1. Percentage of public school students who were English language learners, by state: Fall 2018

1 Includes imputation for nonreported data from Vermont.

NOTE: U.S. average is for the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Categorizations are based on unrounded percentages.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), “Local Education Agency Universe Survey,” 2018–19. See Digest of Education Statistics 2020, table 204.20.

In fall 2018, the percentage of public school students who were ELLs was 10.0 percent or more in 10 states, most of which were located in the West, and the District of Columbia.3 The states were Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington. California reported the highest percentage of ELLs among its public school students (19.4 percent), followed by Texas (18.7 percent) and New Mexico (15.8 percent). An additional 23 states had percentages of ELL students between 6.0 and 10.0 percent. In contrast, the percentage of students who were ELLs was less than 3.0 percent in five states: Wyoming (2.9 percent), New Hampshire (2.9 percent), Montana (2.4 percent), Vermont (2.2 percent), and West Virginia (0.8 percent). [State]
Reflecting the national change, the percentage of public school students who were ELLs was higher in fall 2018 than in fall 2010 in 42 states and the District of Columbia. In the remaining 8 states, the percentage of public school students who were ELLs was lower in fall 2018 than in fall 2010. The largest positive percentage point change occurred in Massachusetts (4.7 percentage points) and the largest negative percentage point change occurred in Nevada (5.7 percentage points). [Time series ] [State]
Figure 2. Percentage of public school students who were English language learners, by locale: Fall 2018
Figure 2. Percentage of public school students who were English language learners, by locale: Fall 2018

NOTE: Data in this figure represent the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Data are based on locales of school districts. Excludes ELL students who are enrolled in prekindergarten.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), “Local Education Agency Universe Survey,” 2018–19. See Digest of Education Statistics 2020, table 214.40.

In fall 2018, the percentage of students who were ELLs was higher for school districts in more urbanized locales than for those in less urbanized locales. ELL students constituted an average of 14.9 percent of total public school enrollment in cities, 9.8 percent in suburban areas, 6.9 percent in towns, and 4.2 percent in rural areas. [Locale ]
Figure 3. Percentage of public school students who were English language learners, by grade level: Fall 2018
Figure 3. Percentage of public school students who were English language learners, by grade level: Fall 2018

1 Also includes students reported as being enrolled in grade 13.

NOTE: Data in this figure exclude Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Bureau of Indian Education.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, EDFacts file 141, Data Group 678, extracted September 18, 2020; and Common Core of Data (CCD), “State Nonfiscal Survey of Public Elementary and Secondary Education,” 2018–19. See Digest of Education Statistics 2020, table 204.27.

In general, a higher percentage of public school students in lower grades than of those in upper grades were ELL students in fall 2018. For example, 15.1 percent of kindergarteners were ELL students, compared with 8.9 percent of 6th-graders and 7.4 percent of 8th-graders. Among 12th-graders, only 5.1 percent of students were ELL students. This pattern was driven, in part, by students who are identified as ELLs when they enter elementary school but obtain English language proficiency before reaching the upper grades.4 [Grade level/Student level]
Table 1. Number and percentage distribution of English language learner (ELL) students in public schools and number of ELL students as a percentage of total public school enrollment, by the 10 most commonly reported home languages of ELL students: Fall 2018
Table 1. Number and percentage distribution of English language learner (ELL) students in public schools and number of ELL students as a percentage of total public school enrollment, by the 10 most commonly reported home languages of ELL students: Fall 2018

1 Detail does not sum to 100 percent because not all home language categories are reported.

2 Examples of situations in which English might be reported as an English language learner’s home language include students who live in multilingual households and students adopted from other countries who speak English at home but also have been raised speaking another language.

NOTE: Data in this table exclude Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Bureau of Indian Education. Excludes Vermont data because Vermont did not report by the date this source was extracted. There were a total of 1,687 ELL students in Vermont in fall 2017.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, EDFacts file 141, Data Group 678, extracted September 18, 2020; and Common Core of Data (CCD), “State Nonfiscal Survey of Public Elementary and Secondary Education,” 2018–19. See Digest of Education Statistics 2020, table 204.27.

Spanish was the home language of 3.8 million ELL public school students in fall 2018, representing 75.2 percent of all ELL students and 7.7 percent of all public K–12 students. Arabic and Chinese were the next most commonly reported home languages (spoken by 135,900 and 102,800 students, respectively). English was the fourth most common home language for ELL students (99,500 students), which may reflect students who live in multilingual households or students adopted from other countries who were raised speaking another language but currently live in households where English is spoken. Vietnamese (76,500 students), Somali (40,100 students), Russian (38,200 students), Portuguese (37,500 students), Haitian (32,800 students), and Hmong (31,300 students) were the next most commonly reported home languages of ELL students in fall 2018. The 30 most commonly reported home languages also include several whose prevalence has changed greatly between school year 2009–10 and fall 2018. For example, the number of ELLs who reported that their home language was Telugu, a Karen language,5 or Swahili more than tripled between school year 2009–10 and fall 2018 (from 3,900 to 13,000 for students who reported that Telugu was their home language, from 4,500 to 13,500 for students who reported that a Karen language was their home language, and from 4,400 to 18,400 for students who reported that Swahili was their home language).6 [Time series ]
In fall 2018, there were about 3.8 million Hispanic ELL public school students, constituting over three-quarters (77.6 percent) of ELL student enrollment overall.7 Asian students were the next largest racial/ethnic group among ELLs, with 528,700 students (10.7 percent of ELL students). In addition, there were 331,900 White ELL students (6.7 percent of ELL students) and 218,000 Black ELL students (4.4 percent of ELL students). In each of the other racial/ethnic groups for which data were collected (Pacific Islanders, American Indians/Alaska Natives, and individuals of Two or more races), fewer than 40,000 students were identified as ELLs. In addition, 766,600 ELL students were identified as students with disabilities in fall 2018, representing 15.3 percent of the total ELL student enrollment. [Race/ethnicity ] [Disability]

1 Genesee, F., Lindholm-Leary, K., Saunders, W., and Christian, D. (2005). English Language Learners in U.S. Schools: An Overview of Research Findings. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 10(4): 363–385. Retrieved December 8, 2020, from https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327671espr1004_2.

2 For 2014 and earlier years, data on the total number of ELLs enrolled in public schools and on the percentage of public school students who were ELLs include only those ELL students who participated in ELL programs. Starting with 2015, data include all ELL students, regardless of program participation. Due to this change in definition, comparisons between 2018 and earlier years should be interpreted with caution. For all years, data do not include students who were formerly identified as ELLs but later obtained English language proficiency.

3 Categorizations are based on unrounded percentages.

4 Saunders, W.M., and Marcelletti, D.J. (2013). The Gap That Can’t Go Away: The Catch-22 of Reclassification in Monitoring the Progress of English Learners. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 35(2): 139–156. Retrieved December 8, 2020, from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.3102/0162373712461849.

5 Includes several languages spoken by the Karen ethnic groups of Burma and by individuals of Karen descent in the United States.

6 School year 2009–10 data include all ELL students enrolled at any time during the 2009–10 school year, except data for California, which reflect ELL students enrolled on a single date. All other data in this indicator include only ELL students enrolled on October 1 of the corresponding year.

7 The number of Hispanic ELL students is larger than the number of ELL students who speak Spanish. Home language data may be missing for some Hispanic ELL students. In addition, some Hispanic ELL students may report that they speak a language other than Spanish at home (such as a language that is indigenous to Latin America).

Supplemental Information

Table 204.20 (Digest 2020): English language learner (ELL) students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools, by state: Selected years, fall 2000 through fall 2018;
Table 204.27 (Digest 2020): English language learner (ELL) students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools, by home language, grade, and selected student characteristics: Selected years, 2008-09 through fall 2018;
Table 214.40 (Digest 2020): Public elementary and secondary school enrollment, number of schools, and other selected characteristics, by locale: Fall 2014 through fall 2018
CLOSE

Suggested Citation

National Center for Education Statistics. (2022). English Language Learners in Public Schools. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved [date], from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cgf.